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Although brothers are at conflict, Sri Lanka's governing family still holds the key to the country's future

Image: Reuters Berita 24 English - It was the point at which two brothers who had ruled Sri Lankan politics for over two decades suddenly p...

Image: Reuters

Berita 24 English - It was the point at which two brothers who had ruled Sri Lankan politics for over two decades suddenly parted ways.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered police to stop a mass of ruling party supporters marching towards activists protesting against a terrible economic crisis on May 9, fearing violence.

Former media minister Nalaka Godahewa, who was with the president at the time, stated, "He was screaming at the police to disperse the throng."

Despite the president's orders, protests protesting inflation, power outages, and food shortages became deadly. Nine people were killed, hundreds were injured, and Rajapaksa supporters' property was attacked.

The escalation of violence signaled a turning point in the conflict. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya's older brother, had addressed the government supporters earlier in the day. According to a source with direct knowledge of events at the prime minister's mansion in the commercial hub of Colombo, he was sitting down for lunch when an aide showed him a video of the violence.

"He knew what he was going to do next," the person claimed.

The 76-year-old, who was once one of Sri Lanka's most popular politicians, finished his lunch and napped, according to the source. He announced his resignation as prime minister at 5.02 p.m., exposing a schism in Sri Lanka's ruling dynasty.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to fear retaliation, said the president had been pressuring the prime minister to resign since early April as a concession to protestors who had demanded both men's removal over their handling of the island's economic crisis.

"GR (had) told MR to go," claimed another family source, who also sought anonymity. The president and prime minister are referred to by their initials.

For this report, neither Mahinda Rajapaksa nor the president responded to calls for comment. They haven't made any public statements regarding their disputes.

Because of the demonstrators' rage, Mahinda went into hiding at a naval facility and remained under the protection of the armed forces for several days after resigning. Gotabaya, 72, remains president despite widespread opposition from Sri Lankans, and political leaders are debating whether to limit his administrative powers.

The Rajapaksas, on the other hand, aren't finished yet.

According to at least five persons who talked to Reuters, including Godahewa and two other former ministers, a third brother, Basil, holds significant influence over the country through his control of the ruling party, which dominates parliament.


Ranil Wickremesinghe, the incoming prime minister, is reliant on the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to enact an interim budget in the coming weeks, outlining measures to repair the country's finances. In response to demonstrators' demands, he has proposed reforms to limit the president's authority and strengthen parliament.

Before agreeing to a bailout, the International Monetary Fund demands proof of reforms, which is now being negotiated. To restructure its debt and recover access to global financial markets, Sri Lanka needs to reach an agreement with bondholders and bilateral creditors.

Wickremesinghe is a member of a party with only one seat in parliament, although the SLPP and its coalition partners command a solid majority in the 225-seat legislature.

All five sources said the ruling party is still loyal to Basil, 71, who helped rebuild the party after the Rajapaksas unexpectedly lost power in a presidential election in 2015. According to a source close to Basil, the former finance minister would back his elder brother, the president, but not at the expense of the party.

In neighboring India, South Asia's regional heavyweight, and China, which has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in the last decade as part of its Belt and Road Initiative linking it to the rest of the globe, events in Sri Lanka are constantly monitored.

Wickremesinghe faced a balancing act, according to political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda, between meeting the demands of the demonstrators and Sri Lanka's international creditors while placating the ruling party with an agenda that Basil would accept.

"What Basil Rajapaksa wants will be approved by parliament," Uyangoda said.

Basil, who has remained silent since resigning with the rest of the cabinet in early April, did not reply to calls for comment.

BROTHERS UNITED is a group of brothers who have come together to form a

Mahinda, Gotabaya, and Basil Rajapaksa were previously a close political grouping among the nine Rajapaksa siblings.

When Mahinda, a lawyer by training, entered parliament in 1970, he became Sri Lanka's youngest ever MP. By 2004, he had risen to the position of Prime Minister by a combination of political flair and deception. He was elected president the next year.

After Mahinda and Gotabaya, a veteran army commander who was appointed defence secretary, destroyed a decades-long Tamil rebellion in the country's north and east in a ruthless government offensive in 2009, the brothers' popularity skyrocketed.

In 2010, Mahinda won re-election with a landslide victory, promising to repair the country's profound divisions. He also moved Sri Lanka closer to China, attracting large-scale investment such as the $1.4 billion Hambantota port, which irritated India, which was concerned about losing influence over its southern neighbor.

The Rajapaksas were thrown into disarray in 2015 when Mahinda was defeated in presidential elections.

Basil, a dual citizen of the United States and Sri Lanka who worked as a long-time adviser to Mahinda while he was president, was key in molding a little political party into the SLPP in 2016, transforming it into the country's most powerful political force.

The Rajapaksas saw an opportunity to reclaim power in 2019 after a series of coordinated suicide bombings by Islamist extremists killed more than 250 people.

With Basil refusing to relinquish his citizenship in the United States and Mahinda unable to run owing to term restrictions, Gotabaya stood for president and won by a landslide.

Soon after, Mahinda was named Prime Minister, and Basil was named Finance Minister in 2021, but things were starting to fall apart.


Sri Lanka's descent into economic disaster began in 2019, when the Rajapaksas approved populist tax cuts quickly after regaining power, over opposition from certain advisers.

The former minister, Godahewa, said he warned Gotabaya that the cuts would be a "catastrophe" because of the government's already difficult financial situation, but he was overruled.

Officials from the government have previously stated that the tax cuts are aimed at reviving the economy by putting more money in people's hands.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out tourists and, with it, a vital source of foreign cash. Remittances from foreign workers have also decreased.

The president abruptly implemented a manifesto commitment to switch to organic farming and phase out the use of artificial fertilisers over the next decade in May 2021, throwing the country's farming sector into chaos and resulting in food shortages as crop yields plunged.

According to four of the sources, relations between Mahinda and Gotabaya had worsened at that time.

According to a source at the prime minister's residence, the two brothers disagreed over the president's fertiliser ban, but an effort by the prime minister to overturn the decision in 2021 was stopped by Gotabaya's staff.

There have been no previous reports of such disparities between the two.


The Rajapaksas resisted going to the IMF for financial assistance even as the country's severe debt issues were clear. Basil, the then-finance minister, wanted the local economy to recover from the ravages of the pandemic before approaching the IMF, according to a government official early this year.

Former Rajapaksa coalition partner Udaya Gammanpila began going into the finances of Ceylon Petroleum Firm (CPC), the country's largest public corporation in terms of turnover, shortly after being appointed energy minister in August 2020, and says he was appalled by what he observed.

CPC was selling petroleum goods at a significant discount to consumers, and it had racked up a $4 billion bill with suppliers while not having enough revenue to pay it back.

He warned a cabinet meeting in October 2020 that the country was on the verge of a foreign currency crisis, and advised limiting non-essential imports and allowing the rupee to float immediately to avert a currency black market.

According to Reuters, Gammanpila also advised the Rajapaksas to seek IMF assistance as soon as possible. He said that his proposals were turned down.

Gammanpila cited Mahinda as stating, "We can control the situation." According to Gammanpila and Godahewa, Gotabaya rarely exerted himself during cabinet discussions.

The government announced last month that its foreign reserves were nearly depleted to zero.

Gammanpila, on the other hand, claimed that Basil was his main adversary.

According to Gammanpila, the two men argued often, with discussions devolving into yelling during at least five cabinet meetings.

Basil thought he knew what he was doing and screamed down objections, according to a source close to the family, who said Basil felt he knew what he was doing and shouted down concerns.

Gammanpila explained, "Other countries spent what they earned." "We used the money we borrowed. That was the distinction."

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